Love Serve Meditate Realize

Tuesday, Oct 14, 2014 A Passage to India

One of our yoga students, Josh, recently returned from a trip to India and wanted to share some highlights of his experience with the Param Yoga community. Here, in his own words, is Josh’s story:

In August 2014 I travelled with my son, Arjuna, to India for five weeks. The goal was to further our spiritual lives and to also, hopefully, have some extraordinary experiences. In the latter respect, the trip exceeded my expectations exponentially.

An Indian teacher of mine had advised spiritual aspirants travelling to India to “pack God in their suitcase”. In other words, God can be found anywhere. One does not have to travel to India. I, however, had a desire to see certain holy sites. Specifically, I wanted to visit Vrindaban (Krishna’s birthplace), Mayapur (a village where the Temple of the Vedic Planetarium, a $50 million edifice, is being built—I am very inspired by Vedic cosmology), and “the Hindu rat temple” (an obscure place I saw on the internet where hundreds if not thousands of rats run free in a sacred temple).

My son and I arrived in Calcutta at 3 AM. The airport is very antiquated. Even more antiquated are the cars outside the airport. Every car looked to have been from the early 1960s. Arjuna described the cars as resembling the flying car in Harry Potter. He was right—it might have been the same model.

The taxi took us to our hotel. The door was locked, but upon knocking, the hotelier, who was sleeping in the lobby awaiting our arrival, opened the door. The hotel attendant groggily came from a back room, clearly also having been awakened. He was wearing a tank t-shirt. The hotelier yelled at him to put on a proper shirt. We were ushered to our room where we went to sleep. I arose three hours later, so anxious to begin my Indian sojourn. We were on the outskirts of town, but I managed to find a taxi. Arjuna and I then went to Mother Teresa’s orphanage. I was surprised to see the “slums” of Calcutta. I hate to use the word, but really it is an apt description. Signs warning against malaria were omnipresent. Trucks with large tanks were delivering water.

At Mother Teresa’s, a group of Christian volunteers was there, departing to a satellite site to help the needy. Arjuna and I were the only ones left. A kindly nun asked if we would like a tour. We went inside and were inundated with dozens of lovely, happy Indian children. The walls were painted with merry colors. Staff and toys abounded. The children were readying themselves for school. Next we went to the second floor where the severely disabled children lived. Once again, the environment was very upbeat, with plenty of loving attention. Lastly, we visited the preschool children. They were singing songs like “Row, row, row your boat.” We joined in. Overall, a blissful experience!

That afternoon we went to the train station to travel to Mayapur. The station master said, “The train leaves in 3 minutes. It’s the local. Run and you’ll catch it.” We ran and hopped onto the “local” train, which I soon found out meant third class travel. The compartment was filled to the brim with street vendors transporting their wares back home after selling all day in Calcutta. Baskets 6 feet in diameter were stacked throughout the compartment, filled with everything from vegetables to lampshades. People were hanging out the door as we travelled. Our own luggage became part of the stack of goods in the middle of the car. We sat on the floor, no seats available. People were smoking, laughing, arguing. One person was smoking marijuana directly under the sign that said “No Smoking”. What fascinated me was the camaraderie. Every time we entered a new station I thought, “There is no way another vendor can squeeze in here.” But, with the help of the vendors already on the train, another big basket was lugged in and added to the precipitous stack. Amusingly, I thought, “How will a conductor come collect the tickets?” I found out later that the government does not collect fares from third class passengers, but just provides the service as a public good.

We arrived in Mayapur train station two hours later. A tuk-tuk (3-wheeled, open-air taxi) took us to a ferry, which took us to a bus and we arrived in Mayapur. There was a big, religious celebration going on, but luckily we were able to find accommodation at the guest house. Unfortunately for Arjuna, no television. We spent four days in Mayapur. One of the most exciting aspects was visiting the Temple of the Vedic Planetarium, which was under construction. We met the artisans who were crafting the large sculptures that would be housed within. Henry Ford’s grandson was the main benefactor. Ironically, he attended boarding school as a child with one of my best friends.

Our next destination was the Karni Mata Temple, which was clear across the width of India. The travel agent with whom I met said it would entail a 35-hour train ride. I said that was too long. He said the alternate was a taxi, a boat ride, a plane ride, and then another taxi. I said, “Okay we will take the train.” We departed from Calcutta. I was surprised to see hundreds (thousands?) of people lying on the immense train platform waiting for the departure of their train. I noticed a book stall hosted by the Ramakrishna Mission with an engaging photo of Swami Vivekananda. We were rushing to get to our train, so I did not purchase the book.

While waiting for the train departure, I began wondering what Arjuna and I would eat for 35 hours. Clearly these trains, built in the 1950s, had no “café car”. I happened to see a Pizza Hut, so I thought I will buy 4 large pizzas—at least Arjuna and I will not go hungry. I went to the “old station” next door to buy the pizza. In the meanwhile, a torrential downpour had begun. We were travelling during monsoon season. This must be one of those monsoons. Completely drenched, I returned to Arjuna and we boarded the train. The train was surprisingly comfortable. Now we were in “first class AC”—first class with air conditioning. We met the most interesting person—a Jain who spoke perfect English. He and his friends were on an overnight, religious pilgrimage. I never knew about the Jains, a sect of Hinduism. They do not eat anything that grows underground. Arjuna laughed as I asked, “So you’ve never had a French fry?”

The Pizza Hut pizzas were inedible. They had no flavor. Arjuna and I gave them to the conductor. Then, to our surprise, food came down the aisles. Vendors selling the most delicious tomato soup, vegetable chow mein, and veggie cutlet sandwiches, all for $.80 apiece. Even more remarkable, the time flowed quickly. The sleeping accommodations were marvelous. A Murphy bed, a curtain, and hand-delivered, fresh-pressed sheets, blanket and pillow were delivered by the conductor. I read Harry Potter and Arjuna studied his driving manual and listened to music.

We arrived at our destination in Bikaner and went to the Sri Ram Guest House. The hotelier greeted us, a kindly Indian fellow who luckily spoke perfect English. We came to learn that his father had started the guest house and was now retired. I met the father the following morning when I got up to do yoga on the cement landing outside my room. He marveled, “Westerners don’t usually awake early.” He and I spoke at length on spiritual matters. He was very wise and very friendly. That day his son took Arjuna and me to the Karni Mata Temple. Sure enough, hundreds (thousands?) of rats scurried over the altar of the temple and at our feet. Yet there were no rat droppings (someone must clean up). We were offered blessed food (halvah), which we ate. I then looked over and saw rats eating from the same portion.

In Bikaner we also had fun going on a sleepover in the desert with a camel and a guide. We also visited local artisans who spun thread and used a loom to make rugs and clothes.

Next we went to Vrindaban, birthplace of Krishna. Little did we know, but we arrived on the eve of Krishna’s birthday. On the actual day there were celebrations in every temple and in the streets. Flower garlands were offered to all, as well as delicious, blessed food in the form of an iced yogurt drink. Arjuna said, “I wish I could have five”—and, sure enough, five cups materialized! We became good friends with a kitchen worker named “Sim”. Sim invited us to his house for dinner. He lived in a hut in the countryside with five other men. He made us mashed potatoes and gave five rupees to a young local boy who ran to buy us a Mountain Dew. We rode back on a motorcycle, shouting religious exclamations: “Haribol!” “Hare Krishna!” This was Arjuna’s first motorcycle ride. An aside: in another city, we saw someone riding a motorcycle with a goat on it. Amusingly, while sightseeing on another day, a monkey stole my glasses.

The last two weeks of our tour was with a tour company: Veg Voyages. It was fun not having to worry about where to eat or sleep. We stayed at royal palaces and were given tours of the villages by a maharaja (AKA king—India is divided up into states; each state has a royal family, now in the seventeenth generation). At the village, we visited temples and drank warm buffalo milk from a street vendor. One of the highlights of this leg of the trip was volunteering for a week at an animal rescue. In India, cows, dogs, monkeys, pigs and goats roam the streets. Some get hit by cars. We tended to the wounded animals in a large sanctuary 20 minutes outside of Udaipur. Arjuna befriended a 3-legged goat. I became particularly fond of a blind monkey.

The trip ended. We were happy to be home.